I’ve been spending a lot of time this summer in the center of the state as I have a cow elk tag and a mule deer buck tag in units that are in that area. I have been combining scouting with site seeing and have ticked off some places I have wanted to visit and explore for a long time.
One of those places is an old stage stop located in a remote canyon down a very dusty road. At times I had to four wheel drive it to get through the powdery dust that was as deep and treacherous as a snowfall.
So this had to have been built before the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. It has to be at least 155 years old. It is still in great condition due to the solid rock construction. It sports a dirt floor and elaborate chimney. It would be pretty tight quarters. I rode in one of those authentic stagecoaches up in Virginia City a few summers ago. Very uncomfortable ride! I can’t imagine bumping along all day in one of those and then “resting” here!
There was an old stone corral as well but it was hard to photograph. I also took photos of some wild horses, golden eagle and a cooperative Western Meadowlark.
For many months of the year there is not a lot going on with wild horses to make for good photos. Horses grazing quietly don’t make for dynamic or interesting photos in my opinion. This time of year we have a crop of new foals which are fun to photograph and fighting stallions which are my absolute favorite subject.
After a mare foals, if everything had gone alright, she is ready to breed again in a week or two. So the herd stallions and bachelors are on the hunt for a mare who is receptive. That naturally puts the males in competition.
In this series of photos, the Roan Stallion is the herd stallion. He comes charging up the hill when he sees that a handsome young bay bachelor is making time with one of his mares. She coyly greets the bachelor with arched neck and they are getting to know one another when the Roan inserts himself in between them. They all sniff noses for a few minutes and then the bay presses his attention which results in a fight. The mare slips off while these two settle it.
The Bay bachelor is rebuffed and leaves to try his luck somewhere else.
I spent a few days at Frenchglen Oregon this last week and paid a visit to the Kiger Mountain BLM Herd Management area to get a look at the famous Kiger Mustangs that reside there. These horses are unique in that they are true Mustangs descended from the Spanish Barb horses brought to North America in the 17th century. I don’t use the word Mustang in relation to the wild or feral horses I usually take photos of because they are not truly Mustangs but rather a mix of domestic stock that one way or another has over the years become wild and proliferated all over the West.
The Kiger herd was discovered in roundups in the 1970s, the horses have distinct characteristics that set them apart from other horse types. They were genetically tested and their DNA proved that they were Mustangs; a bloodline that was thought to have disappeared from America’s wild herds. These horses are carefully managed and protected to preserve our heritage. They are kept separate from other feral horses to keep the bloodlines pure. They are fenced in two very large management areas and are still truly wild.
I had to use a lot of patience to get close to them. The Stallion was especially protective and he charged out aggressively when he saw me to make sure that I was not a threat to his band. Very slowly and in a roundabout way I worked my way up to them. Once I was among them they relaxed like most of the feral horses I photograph and did not pay much attention to me other than some curious looks with pricked up ears which makes for good pictures.
I had heard these horses were different, very beautiful and they are! They are mostly a dun color though other colors are allowed, there was a grulla mare in the band I found, (mouse gray) and I saw in this little herd, most of the identifying characteristics that set them apart. They have primitive markings like a dorsal stripe down the back, some zebra striping on the legs, some have two colors in their manes and black points. They are fine boned and refined looking. They have nice heads and are short backed, overall good confirmation with an athletic look. Looking at the photos I think you will readily see the difference in the Kigers from other feral horses. The Kiger horses were used as inspiration for the animated film that DreamWorks created, “Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron, made in 2002. The stallion in the band I observed looked very much like the animated character, Spirit.
These horses were very alert especially the Stallion. While watching them I saw them notice some antelope in the far distance and they were very interested in their movements. After I had spent some time with them, the stallion charged up the hill after something he had seen ready to do battle. I never saw what he saw, maybe a coyote, but the herd followed him and I let them go at that point and hiked back to my car.
I took my new 7dmarkII out for its second test run Saturday and got lucky with some action at the water hole. In spite of the wet, cold, weather we have been having, the wild horses are still frequenting the pond. It started out boring with just one lonely bachelor hanging around but soon got very interesting. This young stallion had decided he was ready to take on the big boys and he challenged each stallion who showed up escorting his mares to drink.
Some of the skirmishes were short and it didn’t seem as if the older horses were taking the challenger too seriously. One stallion was not in the mood for the young bachelor and they had several encounters that were interesting to watch.
Most of these fights take a predictable path. The herd stallion runs out to meet the threat, any sexually mature male, they usually sniff noses followed by squealing or roaring and some hoof play and or nipping. Often that’s it and the bachelor runs off; end of drama.
The challenger, I will call White Socks as he has four white socks, was not running off. He was particularly vexing for this bay stallion who was not amused at his nonsense. They mixed it up several times without anyone getting hurt and no lost mares for the Bay.
The bay displayed most of the classic herd stallion behaviors. He moved his mares off and then turned to meet White Socks. In the photo with his head down he is “snaking” the mares out of the way.
Not all the pictures are in good focus. I need to work on that. Still getting to know the camera. The 7dII by the way is able to handle all the fast action without pausing. I will have to watch that. The editing was a real chore. 😉
Over the years I have spent a considerable amount of time around wild horse bands photographing them and observing them. I am by no means any kind of horse expert. I grew up riding and owning horses but not delving into their psychology or behavior puzzles. I love horses, their beauty, power and social structure are endlessly fascinating to me now and I know I am not alone in this interest. Horses have elicited that feeling in humans probably from the beginning of time.
One aspect of their behavior has proven both alarming but ultimately gratifying for me. That is when they switch from fearful animals exhibiting all the behaviors you would expect from prey animals to trusting, curious beings that want to get to know me better. This switch happens so quickly that I can imagine how our ancient ancestors made that mental leap to tame these beasts.
It happens a little differently each time depending on the band make up and the individuals in it. Bachelor bands have always been the most bold. These bands are made up of young stallions who have not formed their own family yet by stealing another stallions mares. They roam around together like most adolescent males looking for trouble, harassing each other, play fighting, making half- hearted attempts to challenge herd stallions they encounter and getting chased off. They are fun to watch.
They usually approach me slowly gathering courage from each other. I have to back away and sometimes shoo them off as I do not want them too close. I am very aware of how I could be hurt or my equipment damaged. I have the lessons and yes, scars, from encounters with domestic horses to temper any sentimentality I may feel. I never forget these are wild animals.
Herd stallions protecting his band of mares and offspring need special care. They can be aggressive and you must be on your guard. I watch his body language carefully and gauge my movements based on his reactions. The horses I usually photograph have seen a lot of people so there is not too much to be worried about.
I visit a stretch of the river that the Nature Conservancy has set aside a lot, and recently a small band of wild horses has taken to frequenting this area. It consists of a flaxen chestnut stallion I am going to call Arod. I don’t usually name the horses I encounter but a friend suggested that name from the Lord of the Rings after seeing photos of him. There are three mares, one is a seal brown, I have named Broken Star for the star on her forehead that is broken in two, and two bay mares without any distinguishing marks. There are two young horses with the band. A colt that looks just like his dad and a bay with a big white star on his or her face. Arod’s Son seems an apt name for the colt. He is devoted to the stallion. He follows him everywhere and copies his behavior. They seem to have a close bond.
Anyway, I took photos of this band on Thanksgiving and I ran into them again yesterday in more open terrain. The stallion was alarmed to see me. I think the camo I wear confuses them and adds to their wary behavior. He charged out of the group toward me in a wide arch coming at me from an angle. I took a few photos and decided to back off and continue on my way.
After a fruitless search for deer I decided to take pictures of the horses on the hike out. I approached carefully making a wide angle around them and sat down on a fallen tree to set up to take pictures. Arod and son came charging out together followed more slowly by Broken Star. At first the body language is highly alert and aggressive and I am on notice as well prepared to do what I need to do to fend him off if need be. Waving my arms and shouting have always been enough in these situations in the past. He eventually slows down and stands off in the distance for awhile. Broken Star joins him and the colt. Arod moves ever closer to me now with a different attitude. The wide eyed, whites showing look is gone. He holds his body and head differently. He seems to want to interact with me up close and personal. He keeps walking in so close that at times my long lens is rendered useless. I wave my arms gently and speak to him and the others in low tones telling them that they are close enough. I can’t risk them getting into my space. They seem to understand that. I have had this happen countless times.
They then relaxed into a family grooming session that illustrates how very relaxed they had become. This sequence of events never fails to amaze and please me. They seem to know they can trust me.
It has become a tradition for me to make sure I spend Thanksgiving morning out enjoying nature as being able to immerse myself in the natural world is an aspect of life I am most grateful for. I had an awesome morning. The mule deer rut is in full swing so I donned all my camo and got out to the river before it got light. I included a couple of photos of me in my camo as some folks have asked to see it. It is far from flattering or fashionable attire but I think you can get an idea how effective it is when seen against a sagebrush backdrop. I bathe in scent killing soap, wash my camo in scent neutralizer and use scent elimination spray before heading into the brush. It certainly worked this morning.
I passed a band of wild horses feeding in a meadow by the water as I made my way deeper into the river bottom. Noting their location I was reassured that no matter what happened I wouldn’t get skunked for photo ops today.
I had not seen any deer as of yet and the woods were quiet. I wondered if I was going to see any deer. I was setting up my tripod and deciding where I should plant myself at the intersection of deer trails and all of the sudden the area was alive with deer. I had a spike and a small two point walking through a small grove of cottonwoods and heard more deer crashing around in the high grass about 75 yards to my left. I could see the large rack of a 4 point over the tops of the grass as he was chasing some does around but could never get a clear photo of him. Meanwhile the two smaller bucks just ignored me as I stood still and shot away at them. The two point heard the camera clicks and was alert to something amiss and never showed himself fully but the spike eventually lay down in the grass close to me but not where I could photograph him.
Something startled all of them at one point and they all ran away. It wasn’t me. Maybe a coyote or another hiker along the trail I hadn’t seen. I sat down in the sagebrush to wait for everything to calm down. A few minutes later a doe came charging through the brush and almost collided with me. We were both startled! Behind her a smaller 4 point came into the clearing so close I couldn’t get a photo. He saw me but couldn’t quite figure me out. He ran off and I got the slightly blurry photo of him as he scrambled off.
I decided to walk through the woods toward the place I had seen the horses. Looked into a thicket of young cottonwoods and saw a sleepy Great Horned Owl. Was able to take a few photos without disturbing him and moved on to the horses.
I have seen this band before and the herd stallion is a particularly good looking flaxen chestnut. He has passed his coloration on to his son complete with white blaze. The other looker in the band is a seal brown mare with a broken star on her face. I got some mediocre photos of the horses the grasses were in the way of some of the shots but all in all a very good day.
This time of year the foals are the show stealers for sure but the stallions always command my attention. The herd stallions have a presence that is captivating and for photographers trying to get close they must be watched carefully. You could put yourself in real danger if you did not pay close attention to what they are doing, their body language and their mood. Sometimes they graze quietly not at all alarmed as you come close, at other times they are in a definitely protective mode and then you had better watch out if they are showing you that they consider you a threat.
Each band of horses has a social structure that includes a stallion, a lead mare, a few mares with foals and half-grown offspring of varying ages that have not left the band yet or been driven off by the Stallion. These bands come fairly close to one another at times and that is when the fighting between the stallions breaks out. They seem to have a tolerance level of about 50 to a hundred yards. Within that zone one of the stallions will feel threatened and charges out to challenge. Sometimes nothing happens, the other stallion will round-up his band and move off, at other times a battle will ensue with roaring and squealing, biting and kicking. These types of photos are exciting to capture but the photographer has to be extremely careful to stay well out-of-the-way. I have been watching some of these stallions for years now and while they are familiar to me I don’t take it for granted that they are truly a wild animal.
Horses seem to me to be special in the animal world in that they know they are beautiful. If ordinary horses know that they are beautiful, then wild stallions know this tenfold. I have included some photos here of herd stallions and one young appaloosa stallion that I saw for the first time a couple of days ago hanging out with his bachelor friend. He is the first appaloosa I have seen in the wild bands. I hope to see him gather some mares in the next few years and pass on his genes. He certainly knows he is beautiful and he is.
The hills have greened up and the horses look good. Most of the horses appear to be well fed and sleek. Each day more and more little ones show up shyly peeking out from behind their protective mothers.
I don’t know where the horses go in the winter, but in the places I am used to seeing them there are a few small bands around during the winter months. This time of year the rest of the horses reappear. Now there are hundreds and everywhere you look they are dotting the landscape.
I have been fortunate to get quite a few photos of new foals. Is there anything cuter?
It is the time of year that spring surprises pop up all around us. Trees and flowers blooming, grass greening and leaves starting faintly to show in the cottonwoods along the river. It is also the time of year that the wild horse bands start showing up with new members. I took my camera out yesterday and was fortunate to find several mares who were amiable to having a family photo taken.
The big seal brown horse with the large white star is a stallion that I have been photographing for 5 years. His band of mares changes membership from time to time but he has always had the same red roan mare alongside him. He passes that big white star on to many of his offspring. I have included a couple of photos of his foals with the distinctive white mark on their face.
The stallions are constantly fighting over mares and stealing them when they can. I caught a couple having a bit of a scuffle on their way to water. I liked the way the dust in the evening light softened the look of the battle.